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Barefoot women doctors help fight myths

By Gargi Parsai

VADGAON KURD, WARDHA, APRIL 6. Pregnant women in this remote village reduce their food intake after the seventh month of pregnancy to keep the size of the foetus small, for easy delivery. They believe that if they fill up their stomach with food, the infant might get suffocated, not knowing that the foetus grows in a separate organ in the womb.

"We were shocked at the superstitions and myths that women nursed in these cluster of under-served villages which lack basic health services, the nearest PHC being about 20 km away. Obsessed with the notion of having a fair-complexioned baby, they would shun iron tablets and dark-coloured vegetables and fruits during pregnancy, not only depriving themselves but the foetus too of nutrition and overall growth,'' social scientist and chairperson of the Magan Sangrahlaya Samiti, Vibha Gupta, told The Hindu here. The service-oriented Gandhian Samiti has since launched an intense awareness generation programme against these myths.

Rural population nearing 50,000 in 20 villages in this un-served area were reluctant to use reversible family planning methods such as the pill and IUD for fear of side-effects. More than that they lacked basic information about health, hygiene and sanitation.

With a sense of urgency, the Samiti sent an all-woman team of gynaecologists and ANMs to the famous Tamil Nadu gynaecologist, Kaushalya Devi at the Gandhigram Kasturba Hospital in Dindigul for training on effective and accurate methods for pregnancy test and safe termination of pregnancy. This programme of accessible barefoot women doctors was initially supported by the Department of Science and Technology as a model project for replication. But with dwindling funds, the service-oriented Samiti has stretched its resources to reach where others don't.

"We started simply by making women aware of their bodies, their sexuality and reproductive organs. It was not easy to break traditional taboos and make them get over their shyness,'' says Meeratai Mahakalkar, who was a trained nurse with the Kasturba Hospital in Wardha and is part of the Magan Sangrahlaya Samiti barefoot team here.

As more and more women started listening, the first breakthrough amongst the Muslim women came when Anjum Sheikh, 28, Sayyed Bi of Surgaon village came forward to use contraceptive for spacing. These two have now become torchbearers and are involved in instilling confidence in others.

Many young women lose their husbands working in the agriculture field from snake or scorpion bites. Dog and monkey bite is also a common occurrence here. Women have to cope with bedbugs, lice, mosquitoes and stomach worms without quite knowing what to do about it.

The samiti is now in the process of setting up health cells in these un-served areas which will give access to indigenous and modern health products and services to rural women. Emphasis would be laid on nutrition from locally-grown fruits such as `ber', `jam' and `jamun', vegetables and herbs. An important component will be de-worming and getting rid of bloodsuckers. The health cells will make available vials against snakebite, scorpion, dog and monkey bite.

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